An impressive Tranmere side overcame a team two leagues above them yesterday, on a pleasant summer evening at Prenton Park. By defeating Fleetwood Town 3-1, a robust Rovers laid down a marker for the coming season, and showed signs that this term’s squad has the potential to go one better than last year, and win automatic promotion as National League champions.
The last time the two sides met was in 2012, also for a friendly. Then, League One Tranmere could only draw 3-3 at recently crowned National League champions Fleetwood’s Highbury ground. Micky Mellon was the Fleetwood manager, and Andy Mangan scored for them. Since then, Mellon, Mangan, central defensive rock Steve McNulty and goalkeeper Scott Davies have swapped sides, but the clubs have almost swapped leagues too. Almost, because Tranmere just failed to overhaul Lincoln at the top last season.
In fact, Tranmere and Fleetwood have experienced vastly different fortunes over the last decade or more. Rovers, whose 16,587 capacity stadium is a monument to the Premier League optimism that gripped Wirral in the mid-1990s, suffered back to back relegations in 2014 and 2015, tumbling from English football’s third tier to its fifth. Under the stewardship of Mark and Nicola Palios, the club has been turned round, and is looking upwards once more. But they now face a third season in non-league obscurity, following last May’s agonising play off final defeat against Forest Green at Wembley.
By contrast, four promotions in the last ten years have seen Fleetwood rise from the Northern Premier League to the top echelons of League One, where they finished in a play off place last term, losing out to Bradford City in the semi by one goal over two legs. Since then, former Manchester City hero Uwe Rosler has bolstered his strikeforce, signing Conor McAleny from Everton, and Jordy Hiwula on a long term loan from Huddersfield. All of this should add to the “heavy metal football” that the German aspires to, in comparing himself to compatriot Jurgen Klopp.
So this was the first true test of Micky Mellon’s 2017 Rovers as they prepare for another fight for promotion back to the football league. The squad – which has lost mobile centre back Michael Ihiekwe, born again goalscorer Cole Stockton and defensive talisman Lee Vaughan amongst others over close season – were outclassed 4-0 by Liverpool in their opening friendly, before overwhelming Cammell Lairds by eleven goals in ‘el Birko classico’. Fleetwood should have provided a much more accurate measure of a refurbished team, and a club that aims to be where Town currently are before too long, while arguably having the potential to go still further.
Tranmere lined up with Ridehalgh and young Mitch Duggan operating as wing backs, with McNulty partnering Ritchie Sutton and Adam Buxton in central defence. New boy Ollie Norburn and Jeff Hughes tried to stamp their authority on the middle of the park, while now permanent signing Jack Dunn had something of a floating role behind Norwood and ex-Chester man James Alabi, who had made a huge impression on his debut by netting five times versus Lairds.
Indeed, following a scrappy opening, it was Alabi who took the game by the scruff of the neck on seven minutes, when he took the ball on and threaded a beautifully weighted pass to the onrushing James Norwood. The pacy forward went one on one with Fleetwood keeper Chris Neal, and made no mistake with a sweet finish into the bottom corner.
Five minutes later, Alabi put Neal to work again, when he chased down a ball he had no real right to – something he would do time and time again. Neal’s attempted clearance hit Alabi somewhere, and the ball spun frustratingly just wide. The game then lulled for a quiet quarter of an hour, as Fleetwood’s midfield gradually started to feel their way into proceedings, before their forward Ashley Hunter picked up the ball from midway into the Tranmere half and tried to beat Davies from distance, though it caused the ex-Cod Army man no major problems.
Just before the break, Tranmere started playing some lovely one touch football, and looked like creating more opportunities. But the final pass never quite came, and Rovers’ front pair suffered some rather physical challenges, all of which referee Scott Oldham judged to be within the laws of association football, though they look better suited to rugby fields and the handling codes. Still, the Super Whites went in 1-0 up, and great value for their lead.
Five minutes into the second half, Jack Dunn played another delightful through ball for Norwood to chase. He hit a decent shot, which was denied by Neal, but the former England schoolboy international took two more bites at it, connecting with the woodwork both times, before the ball was finally shepherded out for a Dunn corner. Fleetwood failed to mark Norwood effectively, and the heavily tattooed Twitter legend was able to stick it past the keeper for what was actually a relatively simple goal from close range.
Tranmere made four changes on the hour mark, and this coincided with Rovers’ worst spell of the game. They started to allow their opponents far too much space, and too many lax passes were going astray. It wasn’t long before a briefly alert looking Fleetwood won a free kick in a central position, but a full 25 yards out. Midfielder Jack Sowerby – who has only scored once in competitive football – struck an absolute stunner past a helpless Davies, and the Rovers fans burst into generous applause for the effort. It was perhaps Town’s second decent attempt, and they had scored from it.
But the two goal cushion was restored just a couple of minutes later, when a speculative long shot from Buxton took a deflection on its way beyond Neal.
The remainder of the game was fairly uneventful, though Rovers briefly went down to ten men when Ritchie Sutton fell to the ground with what seemed to be a slight knee injury. He was taken off as a precaution, and an initially shrugging Hughes came back on to fill in adequately for five final minutes.
This probably wasn’t Fleetwood’s league starting eleven – Rosler had made that many changes from the side that beat Championship outfit Bolton Wanderers by two goals a few days ago. But their fringe players almost totally failed to make any sort of impression on a well organised Tranmere, who outfought and in the end outclassed their League One opponents. The new signings seem to be bedding in well – in particular the dynamic Ollie Norburn and the fearsome James Alabi. With the classy Ben Tollitt, giant target man George Waring and winger Jake Kirby yet to return to the side following injuries, plus youth products coming in and doing a professional job, Rovers seem to have the strength in depth that perhaps they lacked last season. They still need another centre back, but if they secure a good one, they could well be the finished article.
Tranmere: Davies; Buxton, McNulty (Gumbs 60), Sutton (Hughes 85), Ridehalgh (Clarke 71); Duggan (Solomon-Davies 78), Norburn, Hughes (Dawson 78), Dunn (Mangan 60); Norwood (Cook 60), Alabi (Jennings 60).
Tranmere player of the match: Ollie Norburn – on a day when all the starting eleven put in a good shift, his work rate and tenacity allowed Rovers to boss the midfield.